In a Laundromat in Long Beach
Sidestepping in, back pressed against the glass door, he’s caught off guard by all the women and their children. He’s caught off guard, he realizes, because there were so few cars in the lot outside, where seconds ago he parked their Corolla and then managed to pull free the large storage bin wedged into the backseat. Halfway in the Laundromat, he holds the blue plastic storage bin he’s using as a hamper. It’s full of new clothes he bought yesterday from a saleswoman at Nordstrom Rack way over in Laguna Hills. He lets the door slide off his back. Fully inside now, his eyes adjust to the brightness of the overhead lights, and he remembers that this is how Laundromats are, all bright and spacious, rows of machines buzzing and rows of connected chairs, mostly orange, filled with people biding their time, and it occurs to him, because of that brightness, that it was gray outside, even dull outside, and that he is pleased to be here. He finds two empty washing machines in one of the outer rows and sets down his storage bin of clothes.
She’d wanted to keep the minivan, and he agreed that would be best, but he’d found himself missing it already this morning. After he’d gone back to the house and dumped the Christmas ornaments on their garage floor and after he’d tossed his new clothes into the Christmas storage bin, having already removed the tags and those long thin stickers some of them had, he couldn’t quite maneuver his new hamper into the Corolla’s trunk, so he was forced to cram it into the backseat and drive to the Laundromat with his own seat uncomfortably pushed forward.
At the washing machines, he tosses in unworn clothes. First the Brioni shirt that Caroline had discovered hidden among the cheaper Ralph Laurens, and then other shirts, and then the pants, more pants than he’d remembered getting. Caroline, that’s the Laguna Hills saleswoman who so expertly assisted him, pulling him through the racks—No, no, she’d said. Not pleats. You’re done with those. Okay? No more pleated pants for you—and he wasn’t quite sure what she’d meant, but he said, Okay, and then he let her stack non-pleated pants on his arm, and she regularly slid her free fingers across the back of the hand she pulled, causing him to shiver each time and each time extracting a small amount of his courage so that he had nothing left in him to ask her on a date after she had finished helping him and escorted him to the check-out line.
He pushes down the pants around the second washer’s cylinder, making room for the boxerbriefs. They’re the last items in the storage-bin-turned-hamper, clumped together in a little mound. Twelve of them, six to a pack, each with a unique color or pattern. He grabs the pair on top, a deep maroon pair with thin black stripes. Forgetting where he is, he presses the pair against himself, flat against his front, holding them tightly in place, stretching the waistband across his belt at each end with each thumb and pointing finger pinched together at his sides. He’d done the same thing last night in his Extended Stay America mini suite, standing in front of the full-length mirror in Night One of the free week stay he’d racked up from company-paid trips. He figured a week would be long enough to find his own apartment, and if not, he could always spring for the second week himself. He held up the navy blue pair last night, the ones with the little white dots, and in his curiosity he stripped down, removing his familiar clothes. Especially familiar were the loose boxershorts, and after he stripped down, he put on the boxerbriefs, and they were tight, tight everywhere, even at the fabric around his thighs, and he stared at himself, and he recognized himself, of course, and he was familiar with the shape of his body even in the unfamiliar room with the unfamiliar objects—lamp, bed, desk—that were behind him but reflected next to him, and he was familiar with that small arc of flesh that hung over the waistbands of his boxers and that now hung over those tight blue boxerbriefs, and he thought to himself, or did he even whisper it—I don’t know if this feels different—and he knew that the tightness was different, certainly, that his body was being cupped by the briefs, his skin being pressed as it had not since he stopped wearing tight underwear during his sophomore year of high school thirty years ago, but he still could not decide if he felt different otherwise, and he stood there, and the fabric gripping his thighs caused his thighs to pulse and his skin to itch, especially the small spaces of skin around his hair follicles, and the pulsing and itching made him want to scream, but he did not know what to scream, so he remained in statuesque torment and ultimately decided that the itchiness was caused by the rigidity of the unwashed fabric and that he’d better get to a Laundromat at some point tomorrow. And now he is pressing against himself the maroon pair with the black stripes, and he is being looked at by the two women closest to him, and he realizes now that they have been watching him, and he throws into the washer the maroon briefs and then all the others until the storage bin is empty.
He walks to the end of the row of washers where a vending machine stands against the wall. The bigger kids are playing video games. There’s an old Pac Man and some kind of military game. He examines the little boxes of detergents behind the glass. They look odd to him held in the air like that, suspended in rows and columns by those spirals he’s used to seeing candy bars and chips trapped in. He chooses the little box with the color image of mountains and grass and flowers. At his washers, he dumps in some of the powder. But seeing it clump, he then eases up on the box’s angle and flicks his wrist to spread the remaining white particles more freely on the other tops of the exposed boxerbriefs, imagining that this somewhat carefree yet somewhat calculated dispersal is the same technique used in sowing wildflower seeds, producing the same balanced unevenness shown in the little color blotches dotting the green grass on the lower half of the now-empty detergent box he is holding. He inserts his quarters into the two machines, turns each dial to hold/cold, and shuts the lids once he sees the water spilling out onto his two piles of new clothes, saturating the layers of briefs, pants, and shirts crammed together into clumps of newness. He almost splurged for socks and undershirts too but decided to cut back spending where it wasn’t necessary. Even today he is wearing an old pair of socks and an old undershirt, along with his last pair of loose-fitting boxershorts, having stuffed the rest of his boxers and all of his old collared shirts and pants—did they all have pleats, he wonders—into a Salvation Army collection bin on Seventh Street.
With his washers washing, he sits down in one of the orange chairs. The chair’s vivid orange makes him aware of the new polo shirt and pants combination he is wearing, lime-green up top and blue-gray below, a combo Caroline said would make him look more youthful but that he is now afraid might seem ridiculous against the orange backdrop. The pants itch him. He crosses his legs and remembers that there is waiting involved in doing laundry, and he is upset with himself for not grabbing a book, but he does not have any books in his Extended Stay America mini suite anyway, and then he thinks about his books at his home—his old home—and wonders if there are any worth keeping, but there aren’t really, and now he wishes he remembered to grab the complimentary hotel paper at least.
A few of the smaller kids run about through the rows of washers, stooping to hide from one another as they scurry along, shaping their hands into guns ready to be fired at whoever might discover them. Their movements bring about the attention of their mothers, who every so often lift their eyes from the folding tables or machines in front of them, take inventory with some glances around the room, and then return to their tasks. He sits and waits, and a portly woman in a yellow floral sundress walks in his direction from the dryers, and he expects her to turn as she gets closer to him, but instead she comes right up to him and gracefully plops down beside him, her left leg touching his right, and he is surprised and confused, but she shifts her body to sort of half face him, and she says to him as if they are old acquaintances, “It’s my older son. He’s the problem.”
And he says, “Pardon?”
And the portly woman says, “My older son. Do you want to know what he did this morning?”
And he says, “Okay.”
And the portly woman says, “Well,” but then she pauses, and then she asks, “What’s your name?”
And he says, “Gerry.”
“Well, Gerry,” she goes on, “I came into the boys’ room to gather up their clothes for washing, and I saw that Isaac was playing one of his games.”
She pauses again, and he feels as though he is supposed to contribute something, so he asks, “What kind of game?”
“A video game,” she says. “I spoiled the boys by putting my old TV in there. So Isaac is playing his game while the little one is sleeping. That’s him right there.” She points to where two small boys are sitting on top of a washer, kicking its side with their heels. “The one on the right,” she says,” and then in a louder voice, “Not too hard, sweetie.”
The boy’s cheeks ripen with embarrassment at sweeetie.
“Sure enough,” she continues, tapping a finger on the man’s leg to recapture his focus, “Sure enough, as I was gathering the clothes, I noticed I didn’t recognize the game he was playing.”
There’s another pause, and again he’s feeling as though he’s supposed to contribute something here, so he asks, “And what’s the problem?”
“The problem,” she says, “is that I bought that game player with two games. One has race cars, and the other is a rodent that eats things. This was one of those fighting games.”
“And you don’t want him playing fighting games.”
“Not really, come to think of it. But that wasn’t the problem.” She looks back over at her younger son, who sits by himself now, legs dangling calmly against a still machine, an aimless look on his face. “The problem is I didn’t buy it for him.”
And there’s another pause when he senses her expectation for him to say something. But he feels as though he’s missing out on the point, or the problem still, so he remains quiet.
“He stole it,” she says.
And he sees how she could jump to that conclusion, but he says, “I’m sure he just bought it for himself.”
“Not with the five dollars a week I give him.”
“But if he saved it up.”
“He doesn’t save it.”
“Well he could have borrowed the game from a friend.”
“His friends don’t share things,” she says, “not valuable things anyway.” There are fewer people in the large bright room now. There are fewer machines buzzing. “He’s fourteen,” she says, “fourteen years old.” Her voice is heavy, and for the first time he feels as though he has been let in on some intimate thing, this woman’s problem, and he wonders what he looked like from across the room when she decided that he was someone worth confiding in, when she must have thought to herself—There, over there, that’s the person here I want to talk to—or was it that he was the only unoccupied, unconversing adult in the room at the moment she walked over to him?—he doesn’t know—and is this what people do in Laundromats?—find strangers to talk to—and if you’re alone, can you not be alone—does current Laundromat etiquette require conversation with neighbors?—and was it only yesterday when he drove down to Laguna Hills to shop for his new life and saw the saleswoman who would introduce herself as Caroline, here to assist, and didn’t he see her before she saw him, and didn’t he position himself near the racks where Caroline would find him after he had seen her, and didn’t he want to smell her young hair when he saw her meandering through the racks of clothes, and didn’t he hope that he would graze her often as they walked together collecting things of her choosing? And the woman in the floral sundress beside him now is not interested in the smell of his hair, he knows this, and she is interested only in the wellbeing of her sons, and she is talking to him about this, and he is not special; he is just there, sitting, being available, and she pounced on his availability, and she has just said heavily, “fourteen years old.”
And he says, “He’ll turn out all right. Fourteen is still young enough to do stupid things.”
And she says, “Thanks, hon. Thanks, Gerry,” and squeezes his knee, then brings her hands to her belly and arches backward. “But he’ll be upset for a while. I’m afraid of not seeing him for a day or two.”
“What did you do?” he says.
“When I saw I didn’t recognize his game, I took it out of the machine and asked him where he got it. His eyes were searching around like they were going to say something for him, and before he could make up some lie, I broke it, smashed it with my foot.”
Gerry nods slowly, not approving or disapproving but soaking in the decision, expecting to be asked what he would have done if he and one of his own children were in that situation.
“There was nothing else to be done,” she says. “I wasn’t about to march him back to the store and pay for it myself. And I can’t risk turning him in. They don’t give kids hand slaps like they did for us. And I couldn’t very well let him keep it. There was nothing else to be done.”
“So how did he take it?” says Gerry.
“Like a boy who wants his way. He griped this or that, then slammed the door and left the house. And I saw him walking down the street while I stood at his window. He was cool as a cucumber. He’s too big for me to chase after him and drag him home. So I just let him stroll on by while I burned my eyes into his cheek. Then I remembered why I’d gone in there in the first place and started picking up their clothes.”
“And now you’re here.”
“And now I’m here.”
A few seconds pass, and she says that she can see that her clothes have stopped tumbling. She wishes him a good day and walks back over to the dryers, pulling out her boys’ clothes and piling them in a cart, wheeling them down to an empty table where she starts her folding.
He gets up too and checks on his clothes in the two washers. They’re done, and he lifts the lids to find the wet clothes clinging to the cylinders in the center of each machine. He smiles at the smallness of freshly washed clothes. It has been a long time since he has seen this marvel, the clunkiness of clothes dismantled or simplified or, he supposes, just made comprehensible somehow, this clean dampness that must be short-lived before it becomes harmful. Maybe he has been apathetic. Or maybe that’s still not the right word. But that’s what his wife said a couple of days ago before she drove away in the minivan with their son and daughter so he could be alone in the house to gather his things.
He pulls out the wet clothes and piles them into a loose laundry cart. The portly woman in the floral sundress is nearing the end of her folding. Her little son walks up to her and tugs on her dress, and she picks him up and sets him on the table. His feet hang high above the floor, and then he pulls in his legs and hugs them, and he lets his eyes close as his forehead rests against his knees. The door to the Laundromat opens and a young man walks in and heads straight toward the round woman and little boy. He stands beside her and helps fold the last few articles. Neither of them speaks. They fold mechanically and silently until the job is done, and then the older son stacks and lifts their two hampers and nudges awake his little brother with an elbow.
These three are walking toward the door, mother and sons, and Gerry’s hand is on the cold metal of his laundry cart, and he cannot let them leave, but they are leaving, and he shouts, “Wait!” and they and the few people remaining all turn to face him, and he runs toward the trio, pulling the cart of sopping new clothes behind him, and he says to the older son whose stolen video game was broken that morning, “Take these clothes. I don’t want them. You can have them. You’ll need them soon. You’re getting older. Take them. Look, they’re nice. They’re good ones. I’ve never worn them. But you have to dry them. Make sure to dry them so they don’t get ruined. Do it now if you can. Here are quarters,” and Gerry reaches into his pocket and retrieves his quarters for the dryer, and he sets them on a table by the young man, and the young man says, “Thanks,” and the woman in the sundress is quiet, her forehead perplexed, but now it is Gerry’s turn to tell a story, so he says, “Yesterday I wanted these clothes, but I don’t want them now. And I don’t want these either,” and Gerry takes off his lime-green polo shirt and his blue-gray pants, pushing off his new lace-less shoes too in the process, and he sets the shirt and pants and shoes on top of the wet clothes, and he says, “These are new too. I only wore them today. Take them, okay,” and Gerry is standing there in his old socks, and his old boxershorts, and his old undershirt, and the room is quiet, and the room is bright and is always bright when the rows of fluorescent lights gleam on the ceiling, and Gerry runs for the door in his socks and boxers, but then he remembers the empty Christmas ornament bin he’d used as a hamper that day, and he runs back to the other side of the room and picks up the empty plastic bin, his socks slipping beneath him as he searches for traction, and with the ornament bin gripped to his chest, he darts for the door and leaves the bright room behind, racing down the street as fast as his middle-aged frame can carry him, and his body is churning inside, his blood knocking along its pathways, and his moving skin is already a hot wet, and the bin grows heavy in his arms even though it is empty, and he runs forward, and he is not thinking about his keys or wallet in his abandoned pants, and he is not wondering if he’ll be able to get his old clothes back from the thrift store, and he is not thinking of the miles he’ll have to run in socks with new holes growing or of the thickening grayness or of the cars passing him and the people staring at a spectacle they do not understand, trying to figure out, with their side view, what this madman is carrying so frantically.
Photo used under Creative Commons from Flickr here.
About the author:
Derek Updegraff is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at California Baptist University. His short stories, poems, translations, and essays have appeared in Bayou Magazine, Sierra Nevada Review, Chiron Review, Natural Bridge, The Classical Outlook, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, and elsewhere. He holds B.A. and M.F.A. degrees from Cal State Long Beach and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Missouri. He currently lives in Riverside, CA, with his wife and two daughters.